Samsung’s R480 14-inch notebook

Samsung’s R480 14-inch notebook

Manufacturer Samsung
Model R480
Price (Starting)
Availability Now

When it comes to laptops, Samsung’s name comes up a little less often than those of bigger fish like Acer, HP, Dell, and Toshiba. The Korean conglomerate has fingers in a lot of pies, though, and it’s given us some interesting notebooks over the years. The Nano-powered Samsung NC20 ultraportable, which our editor in chief continues to use, comes to mind.

We’ll be looking at a different animal today. Samsung’s R480 isn’t an ultraportable; it’s not even thin or light by today’s standards. No, this system is much closer to the desktop replacement category, with a 14″ display, a Core i5 processor, discrete Nvidia graphics, optical storage, and an external ExpressCard slot. You probably won’t be taking the R480 to Starbucks to check on your Facebook page, but it ought to be good for doing real work—and, hopefully, a little bit of gaming.

The big question, of course, is what a bigger, heavier, and more desktop-y machine gets you compared to the more portable laptops we usually cover. To find the answer, we’ve studied the R480 from every angle and taken it through our suite of mobile benchmarks. Read on to see what we’ve learned.

We usually start off these reviews by talking at length about specifications, but there isn’t much to pick apart here. Samsung has based the R480 on Intel’s Core 2010 platform, and it’s thrown in a GeForce GT 330M graphics processor. We’ve already reviewed a couple of systems similar to this one in the past, although in this one, Samsung hasn’t implemented support for Nvidia’s Optimus switchable graphics technology. In any case, the Core i5 should be fast and power-efficient, while the GeForce should provide plenty of extra graphics juice.

The included GeForce GT 330M has 48 shader processors, a gig of dedicated GDDR3 memory, and a 128-bit memory interface. That’s not quite enough pep to run the latest titles with all the eye candy on, especially since this is a DirectX 10 part, but it really ought to suffice for moderate 3D gaming. We’ll get to the bottom of the 330M’s potential on that front in a moment.

The rest of the R480’s spec sheet shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows:

Processor Intel Core i5-430M 2.26GHz
Memory 4GB DDR3-1066 (2 DIMMs)
Chipset Intel HM55
Graphics Nvidia GeForce GT 330M with 1GB GDDR3
Display 14.0″ TFT with WXGA (1366×768) resolution and LED backlight
Storage Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 2.5″ 5,400 RPM hard drive
Toshiba-Samsung TS-L633C dual-layer DVD drive
Audio Stereo HD audio via Realtek codec
Ports 4 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet via Marvell 88E8059
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
Expansion slots
1 Express Card 34-mm slot
Communications 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Atheros AR9285
Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
Input devices Chiclet keyboard
Synaptics capacitive touchpad
Internal microphone
Camera 1.3-megapixel webcam
Dimensions 13.5″ x 9.4″ x 1.2-1.5″ (344 x 239 x 31-38 mm)
Weight 5.1 lbs (2.3 kg)
Battery 6-cell Li-Ion (48 Wh)

Samsung outfits the system with an ExpressCard slot and an optical drive, two features commonly missing from thinner and lighter systems. You never know when you might want to back up files to DVD or plug in something like a TV tuner or USB 3.0 controller, so these are nice touches.

A few downsides are apparent from the specs above, though. The 14″ display has a 1366×768 resolution, so it won’t give you more pixel real estate than, say, an 11.6″ ultraportable. Bigger pixels might mean less time spent hunched over trying to decipher text if you have less than 20/20 eyesight, but 1366×768 can feel a teeny bit cramped when multitasking.

That six-cell, 48 Wh, 4400 mAh battery also sounds a tad underpowered for a machine of this caliber. We saw a battery with similar specs in the Eee PC 1201T, a system that lies closer to the netbook end of the spectrum, and it only lasted about four hours while browsing the web in Windows 7. The R480’s 32-nm Core i5 processor probably won’t be too hard on the battery, but we’re not holding our breath for spectacular run times.

The unit Samsung sent us came with the 32-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium pre-installed. Windows reports a full 4GB of RAM, but popping open the Task Manager and looking at the Performance tab reveals only 3060MB of total usable memory. That makes sense, since the 32-bit OS’s 4GB limit spans both system and GPU memory. The GeForce GT 330M has a gigabyte of dedicated RAM. Shipping a machine that only lets you use three quarters of the available system memory seems a little strange, especially since 64-bit editions of Windows 7 can be found on multitudes of pre-built PCs these days. Thankfully, cheaper, trimmed-down variants of the R480 selling at Best Buy do come with Win7 x64.

On the physical side of things, the R480 has a relatively tasteful red-and-black paint job—a welcome twist from the heaps of machines clad with nearly identical combinations of gray and black. The burgundy-and-ebony palette also helps partially conceal the system’s girth… and with a thickness between 1.2″ and 1.5″, there’s plenty of that to go around.

A 14″ display size gives the R480 an interesting form factor for a desktop replacement. As you can see in the picture above, the R480’s proportions allow for a more or less full-sized keyboard (minus a numpad), a reasonably large touchpad, and plenty of connectivity along the sides. Thanks to the mid-sized screen, the resulting system feels quite a bit more manageable than more fleshed-out desktop replacements with 15.6″ panels. I’ve always found those a little bulky for proper mobile use. At just over five pounds, the R480 shouldn’t feel like an overweight kid nephew when it’s sitting on your lap. You might compare it to an overweight house cat, at worst.

The display and the controls
Desktop replacement or not, the R480 is still a laptop, which means you’ll be stuck using its display, keyboard, and touchpad more often than not. Are those components any good, then? Let’s start up top with the 14″ display:

The R480’s LCD panel is bright, crisp, and glossy. Like most laptop displays, however, it’s subject to the narrow vertical viewing angles of TN panel technology. Color reproduction appears good overall, even if my eyes detect a slight blue tinge. (The picture above doesn’t really do the panel justice, of course.) It’s nice to see that Samsung went with a nice, bright LED backlight to counteract the display’s glossiness; there’s really nothing worse than a dim LCD with a mirror finish.

Looking down reveals the R480’s keyboard, with which I became enamored almost instantly. The chiclet keys provide great tactile and auditory feedback and have great resistance. Also, unlike many of the chiclet keyboards we’ve used over the years, this specimen has very little flex—even if you push down hard in the middle. A pleasant typing experience is no doubt an important quality for a desktop replacement system, and the R480 delivers in that area.

In case you’re wondering, no, that’s not a U.S. keyboard up there. Samsung shipped us the Canadian version of this laptop, which comes complete with a big enter key, labels for the Quebec French layout, and a Tim Horton’s at the back. The R480 variants that ship in the states have a standard layout with a normal enter key and none of that multilingual gobledygook.

  Total keyboard area Alpha keys
  Width Height Area Width Height Rough area
Size 294 mm 103 mm 30,387 mm² 167 mm 52 mm 8,774 mm²
Versus full size 103% 94% 96% 97% 92% 89%

Size-wise, the R480’s chiclets compare favorably overall to the more conventional, “full size” keys of our reference system. Samsung could have gone with a slightly larger keyboard, though, since there’s plenty of empty space above and beside the current one.

Samsung scores a partial brownie point for to the R480’s touchpad. This Synaptics design has a slightly rough surface and LED lights at each corner, so it feels great to use and stands out clearly from the palm rest. The built-in multi-touch functionality lets you scroll by swiping two fingers, zoom by pinching, and rotate by pivoting. Oddly, I couldn’t find a setting to enable right-clicking by tapping with three fingers. That’s a little unfortunate, because the touchpad’s rocker button sits flush with the palm rest, so hitting it with your thumb involves more work than it should. Tap zones are supported, however.

My only gripe with the R480’s input area is the palm rest, which has a glossy finish and not one, not two, not three, but four stickers along the top right. Nothing says “class” like a smudge-ridden palm rest covered with product logos, right?

Connectivity and expansion
The R480 flaunts its desktop replacement status with a very well-rounded set of inputs and outputs. On the left, we have the power connector, Ethernet, VGA, HDMI, external Serial ATA, two USB, and 1/8″ headphone and microphone ports.

Samsung garnishes the right side with an ExpressCard/34 port, a DVD drive, a spare USB connector, and a Kensington lock. I should note something about that optical drive tray: every time I pick up the system, my hands naturally reach for that area, and lifting the machine pushes the tray inward. That doesn’t exactly contribute to a feeling of solidity.

There’s also an SD card reader under the front lip of the system, which you can see below. (Using said card reader doesn’t involve flipping the system over, naturally.)

Exposing the R480’s underbelly shows us to the upgrade compartment door, which is held in place by six screws. Popping off those screws uncovers the R480’s two 2GB SO-DIMMs, Seagate hard drive, Wi-Fi adapter, and CPU heat pipe. If you’re wondering about that seventh screw closest to the SO-DIMM slots, it holds the optical drive in place.

Samsung deserves praise for providing such easy access to internal components. Storage upgrades in particular should be child’s play. The hard drive goes in a 2.5″ drive cage with a pull tab, and Samsung includes a little SATA plug adapter that lets you connect the drive by lowering it with a single vertical motion. Couldn’t be easier.

Our testing methods
The R480 will be going up against two netbooks, the Eee PC 1005PE and 1000HA, plus five grown-up laptops, the Acer Aspire Timeline 1380T, Asus K42F, Asus U30Jc, Asus UL80Vt, and Dell Studio 14z. We’ve thrown the Eee PC 1201T in the mix, as well, even though it doesn’t come with an OS, and the jury is still split on whether it’s called a notebook or a netbook.

Asus’ default power management profile underclocks the Eee PC 1005PE and 1000HA’s Atom processors to 1.33GHz and 1.25GHz, respectively, when those netbooks are running on battery power. We tested both with this profile and the “high performance” mode, which lets CPUs scale up to their top speeds even on the battery. The Asus U30Jc, UL80Vt, and K42F also have special “Battery-saving” modes, which we’ve used in our battery life comparisons. We tested the UL80Vt in its “Turbo” mode, which overclocks the processor, as well. Other laptops were run in their default configurations.

With the exception of battery life, all tests were run three times, and their results were averaged.

System Acer Aspire AS3810-6415 Timeline Asus Eee PC 1000HA Asus Eee PC 1005PE Asus Eee PC 1201T Asus K42F Asus U30Jc Asus UL80Vt-A1 Dell Studio 14z Samsung R480
Processor Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 1.4GHz Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz Intel Atom N450 1.66GHz AMD Athlon Neo MV-40 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-540M 2.53GHz Intel Core i3-350M 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 1.3GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-430M 2.26GHz
North bridge Intel GS45 Intel 945GSE Intel NM10 Express AMD RS780MN Intel HM55 Express Intel HM55 Express Intel GS45 Nvidia GeForce 9400M G Intel HM55 Express
South bridge Intel ICH9M Intel ICH7M AMD ID439D Intel ICH9M
Memory size 4GB (2 DIMMs) 1GB (1 DIMM) 1GB (1 DIMM) 2GB (1 DIMM) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs) 3GB (2 DIMMs) 4GB (2 DIMMs)
Memory type DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz
Memory timings 6-6-6-15 4-4-4-12 5-5-5-15 5-5-5-15 7-7-7-20 7-7-7-20 6-6-6-15 7-7-7-27 7-7-7-20
Audio Realtek codec with drivers Realtek codec with 6.1.7600.16385 drivers Realtek codec with drivers Realtek codec with drivers Realtek codec with drivers Realtek codec with drivers Realtek codec with drivers IDT codec with drivers Realtek codec with drivers
Graphics Intel GMA X4500MHD with drivers Intel GMA 950 with drivers Intel GMA 3150 with drivers AMD Radeon HD 3200 with 8.635.0.0 drivers Intel GMA HD with drivers Intel GMA HD with drivers Intel GMA X4500MHD with drivers
Nvidia GeForce G210M with drivers
Nvidia GeForce 9400M G with drivers Nvidia GeForce GT 330M with 258.96 drivers
Hard drive Toshiba HDD2HD21 500GB 5,400 RPM Seagate Momentus 5400.4 160GB 5,400 RPM Seagate Momentus 5400.4 160GB 5,400 RPM Hitachi Travelstar 5K500.B 250GB 5,400 RPM Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400 RPM Hitachi Travelstar 5K500.B 320GB 5,400-RPM Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400 RPM Western Digital Scorpio Blue 320GB 5,400 RPM Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400 RPM
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium x64 Windows 7 Starter x86 x64 Windows 7 Starter x86 x64 Windows 7 Home Premium x86
Ubuntu Linux 10.04
Windows 7 Ultimate x64 Windows 7 Home Premium x64 Windows 7 Home Premium x64 Windows 7 Home Premium x64 Windows 7 Home Premium x86

We used the following versions of our test applications:

All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

Application performance
We’ll start off our mobile benchmark suite by looking at browser performance using FutureMark’s Peacekeeper benchmark. FutureMark says this app tests JavaScript functions commonly used on websites like YouTube, Facebook, Gmail, and others. Next, we’ll look at Flash performance using the Flash component of the GUIMark rendering benchmark.

Among the systems we’ve tested, the R480 is second only to the Asus K42F, another Core 2010-based machine—and one with a higher-clocked Core i5-540M processor.

We ran the GUIMark test with both Flash 10 and Flash 10.1, the latter now available in a production-ready state with hardware acceleration for certain functions, such as video playback. The R480 gets a slight benefit from the newer release here, but nothing to write home about.

Of course, web browsing and Flash shouldn’t exactly feel sluggish on DTR laptops with Core i5 processors. To really stress these machines, we’ve got to look at more intensive tasks like file compression and decompression using 7-Zip’s built-in benchmark.

The Core 2010-based systems pull well ahead of the competition, which comes as no surprise. Strangely, though, the R480 falls a wee bit behind the slightly less well-endowed U30Jc in the compression test. Storage performance might have something to do with that.

In x264 video encoding, a more CPU-focused test, the R480 returns to its rightful place behind the K42F and well ahead of the ultraportables and netbooks. Nothing beats a grown-up CPU for doing real work, clearly.

Video playback
Considering the R480 has not one, but two graphics processors and a full-featured Core i5 CPU, video playback smoothness really shouldn’t be an issue at any resolution. However, we were still interested in gauging CPU utilization with our sample video clips. We played the Alice in Wonderland, Avatar, and DivX videos in a maximized Windows Media Player window. The YouTube trailer was played with Flash 10.1 in a maximized Firefox window. In each case, we kept an eye on the Task Manager and recorded the lowest and highest CPU utilization numbers.

  CPU utilization Result
Alice in Wonderland QuickTime 720p 0-9% Perfect
Avatar QuickTime 1080p 0-8% Perfect
DivX PAL SD 0-12% Perfect
720p YouTube HD windowed 10-20% Perfect

Were you expecting any less? The R480 can chew through just about any high-definition video with its CPU barely breaking a sweat.

Battery life
Each laptop’s battery was run down completely and recharged before each of our battery life tests. We used a 40% brightness settings on all displays except for the Aspire Timeline’s, which we cranked up to 50%. (We found the Timeline’s 50% setting more directly comparable to the 40% settings of the K42F, UL80Vt, and Studio 14z.)

For our web surfing test, we opened a Firefox window with two tabs: one for TR and another for Shacknews. These tabs were set to reload automatically every 30 seconds over Wi-Fi, and we left Bluetooth enabled on systems that include it (the U30Jc does not). Our second battery life test involves movie playback. Here, we looped a standard-definition video of the sort one might download off BitTorrent, using Windows Media Player for playback. We disabled Wi-Fi and Bluetooth across the board, too.

I believe we’ve just found the R480’s Achilles’ heel. Battery life was poor enough to put the R480 at the bottom of our charts in both web browsing and movie playback tests. We’re talking worse than an Athlon Neo-powered Eee PC in Ubuntu Linux.

Games, games, games!
Can the R480’s gaming performance redeem its surprisingly poor battery life? We tried four games, each time tinkering with the settings to reach frame rates we deemed playable, while keeping an eye on those frame rates using FRAPS. We started off our gaming tests with Gearbox’s Borderlands, a staff favorite at TR and a good source of GPU-intensive eye candy.

Impressively, the R480 had no trouble with Borderlands, hitting frame rates in the 22-38 FPs range at 1366×768 with 2X anisotropic filtering, no ambient occlusion, and all other settings cranked up. 22 FPS might sound low, but the counter only got down that far in a handful of cases with a lot of activity on screen. Overall, the game was smooth, very playable, and quite pretty.

Next, we started up DICE’s Battlefield: Bad Company 2, a more recent title based on a different game engine. The R480 was able to stay between 21 and 38 FPS at 1366×768 with 2X AF, no antialiasing, no ambient occlusion, no vsync, and “high” settings everywhere else. Getting smoother frame rates in heavy action involved stepping down to the “Medium” preset, which gave us about 24-40 FPS without impacting image quality too negatively. Again, in spite of the somewhat low minimum frame rates, playability wasn’t an issue.

The R480 demanded a little more tinkering to produce smooth frame rates in Avalanche’s Just Cause 2. At 1366×768 with 2X AF, antialiasing disabled, decals enabled, high textures, and medium everything else, the Samsung laptop managed 24-53 FPS—definitely playable, and quite appealing visually despite the concessions.

Both of the tracks in Slightly Mad Studios’ Need for Speed: Shift demo were rendered surprisingly smoothly on the R480 at 1366×768 with trilinear filtering, no vsync, high textures, and medium settings for everything else. Frame rates only dipped as low as 29 FPS and often reached into the mid-40s. Definitely not bad, especially since Asus’ GeForce 310M-powered U30Jc choked on this very same demo.

I think the R480’s gaming credentials are pretty clear at this point. You can probably expect to play most, if not all, recent titles on this laptop without sacrificing image quality to a huge extent. That’s pretty impressive considering the GeForce GT 330M GPU’s relatively spartan specifications.

Samsung’s R480 is an easy laptop to overlook. The 14″ form factor isn’t terribly hip or sexy these days, and the R480’s manufacturer, Samsung, is a relatively small player in the notebook space. As we found, though, the R480’s burgundy finish conceals a surprisingly worthy gaming machine—and excellent CPU performance to boot.

It’s just a shame the game-worthiness doesn’t go hand-in-hand with good battery life, or this system would be a home run for Samsung. The R480’s poor run times will likely limit it to desktop use. Maybe that’s not so bad for a relatively bulky 14″ system, but it just reeks of squandered potential.

The availability situation presents another problem. Up in Canada, both NCIX and Future Shop sell the system we’ve reviewed today (for $1,020 and $900 CAD, respectively). In the U.S., however, we can’t find the R480 listed at Amazon, Newegg, or in our price search engine. Best Buy stocks a cheaper version priced at $700, but that model has only a Core i3 processor and Intel integrated graphics—no discrete GeForce GPU. Take out the gaming element, and the R480 might still be worth considering for its comfortable keyboard, good touchpad, and generous expansion potential, but it doesn’t stand out very much from the crowd.

Should the GeForce-powered R480 eventually become more widely available, we’d have no qualms recommending it to gamers who want something in between a road-warrior laptop and a huge desktop replacement that requires its own forklift to transport. If Samsung could throw in a 64-bit edition of Windows 7 and a bigger battery, too, that’d be great.

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